The Economy of Words

On my first tweeting attempt, I overpecked.

Kingfisher Twitter goaded: “Your Tweet was over 140 characters. You’ll have to be more clever.”

Golly. Perhaps the toll of this “information superhighway” (remember that, oldsters?) is not, as I’d feared, death of the mother tongue. It demands short and sweet tweets.

Precision, excision and concision are the domain of any decent editor, but nowadays anyone with a domain gets a say. As newsprint fades, self-proclaimed wordsmiths infest the Web, hanging from the blogging rafters and online shingles (can you GET shingles from social networking?!).

With this entry, I dive into the infested pool.

Lots of tweeting going on. Is there room for one more?

Are there others out there policing for linguistic quality over quantity?

I recently ran across one British bobby, Richard Hearn, creator of the Paragraph Planet. He happens to be featuring my 75-word masterpiece today (cheap plug). Hearn’s mission, one of many, is to cultivate Good Writing™ online — not in 140 characters or less but in 75 words exactly, give or take a word, as the counter can misbehave.

The site draws about five submissions a day, subjecting Hearn to maybe 1,825 paragraphs a year on a range of subjects. What makes him groan? “Clichés, or when someone’s desperately inserting words or repeating themselves to make the word count, as if 75 words is War and Peace,” he tells me. Themes on vampires and “overly motivational pieces … lend themselves to cliché more than most,” he muses.

And to whittle all the submissions down? “I do try and batten down the hatches on my own taste — and something might be less literary but still resonate … or be a genuine response,” he explains. Hmm. “Batten down the hatches.” Cliché? Or resonance?

I, too, subscribe to novelty. I am 90% sure I harbor the novel-seeking gene — the dopamine D4 receptor also associated with substance abuse. I rule out the 10% because I am not currently abusing any substances. I also seek, inside, the novel that I shall write someday.

For now, though, I’ll focus on characters with cachet, Twitter’s directive to be brief while ever “clever” — and to what end? Broadcasting to the twitterverse and blogosphere, saying more with less. To attain followers? Or be one of the crowd? To flush out clichés only to be retweeted, hashtagged, “liked,” shared, coined, co-opted, archived, searched and, one day, perhaps, become the anonymous author of a cliché?

Briefly, before I lose your attention: Squelching clichés for a living I do.

I also recognize that such novel phrases as …

  • “Tires chew the gravel” from John Updike‘s Problems (the short-story collection from the author who first inspired me to write)
  • “Bones tap-dancing back down the velvet …” — a whirl of an invention by my pal and flash-fiction master Jacqui Barrineau on shooting craps

… are all examples of Good Writing™ because they hijack readers’ expectations, animizing inanimate objects. They strike a chord — no! — hit home — NO! — tickle the fancy — groan.

They remind us that, sometimes, to be great is to be understood.